Monday, June 1, 2009

Abridged Lincoln Assassination Leaves Readers Confused

Chasing Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson is a book that I really wanted to like, but unfortunately the more I read the more problems I had with this book. Swanson the author of Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer produced Chasing Lincoln’s Killer as the abridged, child friendly version of his previous book with its release timed to correspond with the blitz of Abraham Lincoln literature for the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth. When I heard about this book I was thrilled, history books for pre-teens is one genre in children’s literature that is lacking. Too old for the American Girl series and at the cusp of tackling more mature (and dense historical tomes), pre-teens have been left out in in the history book department. I was hoping that this book would have helped to fill that vacuum. While artistically pleasing with a catchy book jacket and a stunning gold embossing of John Wilkes Booth’s derringer pistol on the hard cover the book stood out to me from the shelves of Barnes & Noble. Further examination of the interior images left me with a positive reaction, Swanson included some of the best photographs and illustrations relating to the assassination which were clearly reproduced on sturdy paper. Clearly Scholastic Press was willing to spare as much money as possible on this book.

But that is where my praise ends, this is a nice book to have sitting on your shelf—just don’t read it. I have to admit that I have never completed Manhunt, though I have read approximately the first hundred pages. The reason that I have not been able to finish Manhunt is because I cannot stand Swanson’s histrionic prose. Instead of just stating the historical events as they happened, which were dramatic in its own right, Swanson had to milk it. I did not need to read for a page in a half how Abraham Lincoln could have successfully fought John Wilkes Booth if Booth’s shot had miss fired. (Come on, reading about Lincoln’s death is bad enough don’t toy with me with “what if” moments, just get on with it already!) I was hoping that in Chasing Lincoln’s Killer that its slim length, only 198 pages would have limited the Swanson melodrama. Unfortunately I was deeply disappointed in what I found. Swanson starts the book by detailing how his grandmother sparked his interest in Lincoln with a unique birthday present and by stating that everything in “this story is true” (Introduction). Instead what the reader gets is a historical novel sprinkled with a few historical quotes. The main problem with this book is that Swanson neglected to provide source notes or a bibliography so there is no way for the reader to trace where Swanson got the quote from or to provide other sources for the readers who are inspired and want to read more about Lincoln or Booth. If I turned in a research paper to my professor’s without a source notes or a works cited page I would get a big, fat F.

Besides the lack of a resource page, Swanson presents an incomplete picture of John Wilkes Booth and the assassination. Booth emerges as a watered down racist, his speech censored so as not to offend sensitive parents and teachers. This strips the full effect of Booth’s reasons; he was a white supremacist who blamed Lincoln for the down fall of the slaveholding south through the “invasion” of the south and the emancipation of the south’s four million black slaves. Booth started his conspiracy to abduct President Lincoln and spirit him away to the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia where Lincoln would be used as a bargaining chip for the independence of the Confederate States of America. But with the evacuation of Richmond and Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia to Union General Ulysses S. Grant in April 1865, Booth’s adduction plan went up in smoke. The plan to assassinate the president came after Booth and two of his fellow conspirators David Herold and Lewis Powell heard Lincoln’s April 11, 1865 speech laying out his reconstruction plan for the south which included suffrage for black troops which sent Booth into a fury. “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through” Booth declared (Michael W. Kauffman, American Brutus pg. 210). In Swanson’s sanitized version the “n” word is left out, this is meddling with the source and presents a sugar coated version of history. It is ironic that Swanson would censor the racist language of Booth and the conspirators but will go into graphic detail describing how the bullet traveled through Lincoln’s head writing “the wet brain matter slowed the ball’s speed, absorbing enough of its energy to prevent it from exiting the other side of the skull through the president’s face” (pg. 41).

In the end Swanson’s version of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and the manhunt for John Wilkes Booth and the conspirators reads more like a Spark Notes edition than history. The kidnapping plot is placed out of order and is added as more of a footnote than key to the assassination. Swanson leaves out facts and events that would help the reader place the events in its proper place. Missing from Swanson’s book is Dr. Samuel Mudd’s wife turning over Booth boot with his initial in it to Federal officials, a key piece of evidence against the doctor. Also left out is the reason that the Garrett’s had a lock on the tobacco barn that was used to lock Booth and Herold up for the night which lead to their capture, the Garret’s were storing their neighbors furniture in the barn. Chasing Lincoln’s Killer is an unsatisfying read and left me deeply disappointed, this is historiography at its worst and it is distressing that this book is aimed for pre-teens, our next generation of potential historians.

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